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Controller’s race a mystery wrapped in an enigma

Headquarters of the state controller, Sacramento. (Photo: Coolcaesar)

David Evans, a largely unknown Republican candidate in the race for state controller, emerged from obscurity and achieved stunning results on a $600 campaign budget against three established politicians, leaving analysts struggling to interpret the implications of the results.

Was it party ID? His ballot title? Shrewd campaigning? A fluke?

At the outset, the race for the controller’s seat was thought to be between three known contenders: Democrat John A.  Pérez, former Speaker of the Assembly; Democrat Betty Yee, member of the State Board of Education; and Republican Ashley Swearengin, Mayor of Fresno.

“The most shocking thing to me – what most surprised me when I saw the vote count – was that Swearengin did not get more of the Republican vote,” DiCamillo said.

In an April Field Poll, Swearengin held an early lead of 28 percent over Yee’s 19 percent and Pérez’s 14 percent. Though 38 percent of likely voters remained undecided, only 1 percent preferred a fourth candidate.

With the Democratic vote divided, the Field Poll’s Mark DiCamillo expected Swearengin to garner 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote, or nearly all of the Republican vote.

Yet as election results came in, it became clear there was not one, but two major Republican candidates defining the race.

“The most shocking thing to me – what most surprised me when I saw the vote count – was that Swearengin did not get more of the Republican vote,” DiCamillo said. “She was by far the better-known candidate – she ran a serious campaign, had a strong designation next to her name, and spent money. Yet Evans got much of the vote.”

Receiving nearly 25 percent of the vote, Swearengin easily defeated Democrats Betty Yee and  Pérez for first place. As the only serious Republican candidate in the race, many had anticipated Ashley Swearengin’s lead in the primary election.

“David Evans was a surprise to most, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Three months ago, most voters knew as much about Swearengin as they did about Evans” — Paul Mitchell

But with 21.1 percent of the vote, Evans – an accountant from California City – closely followed Yee and  Pérez, both at 21.7 percent, by less than 30,000 votes. This feat, given Evans’ miniscule campaign budget – for every dollar Evans spent, Pérez spent about $2,783 — was completely unanticipated.

A week later, with the final tally still in doubt, the unknown Evans had polled more than 826,000 votes. He trailed Yee by about 24,457 votes and Pérez by some 25,845 votes. Swearengin polled  975,266 — nearly 149,000 votes ahead of Evans.

For some time during the count, Evans was in second place.

“You see Republicans choose between Swearengin and Evans; it’s basically a Yes-No vote on Swearengin,” said DiCamillo. “That says something about the tenor of the Republican Party, among those who voted in this very low turnout election: Many would’ve rejected Swearengin.”

DiCamillo suggested that the race revolved around whether Swearingen was liked or disliked by voters. He said there may have been an “undercurrent of dislike” towards her to give Evans so many votes, as those votes would not have gone easily to Yee or  Pérez.

 “One of the lessons we’ve learned in ’12, and now in ’14, is that in a very low turnout primary, which this was, with a disproportionate share of Republicans turning out, Democrats have to be careful they don’t overload the ballot with candidates splitting too few Democratic voters.” — Garry South

“The low turnout of voters brought to the polls the strongest partisans of each party, which means that Republicans voting in this election were more conservative than the overall GOP rank-and-file,” he said. “Likely many of the Republicans who voted perceived Swearengin as not conservative enough and rather than supporting her candidacy cast a negative vote against her when voting for Evans.”

Yet others believe the votes weren’t anti-Swearingen so much as circumstantial.

According to Paul Mitchell, Vice President, at Political Data, Inc., DiCamillo’s argument “presupposes that voters know enough about Swearengin” when “most voters in the state didn’t know who she was.”

Instead, Mitchell believes that factors such as ballot designation, name, and party made a critical difference in the controller’s race.

“Voters are making decisions on limited information; most voters are looking for cues, or what makes sense to that voter,” he said. “David Evans was a surprise to most, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Three months ago, most voters knew as much about Swearengin as they did about Evans.”

Garry South, a veteran national and state Democratic strategist, agreed.

“I think it was all about Evan’s ballot label, ‘chief financial officer.’ It is a bizarre occurrence having someone like this only spend $600 and come in so high in a race for statewide office.”

South also noted that the returns in the controller’s race and Evans’ near-victory suggests the need for change in the top two primary.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned in ’12, and now in ’14, is that in a very low turnout primary, which this was, with a disproportionate share of Republicans turning out, Democrats have to be careful they don’t overload the ballot with candidates splitting too few Democratic voters,” he said.

Ed’s Note: Mia Shaw is a Capitol Weekly intern from UC Berkeley and a participant in the public affairs journalism program at UC’s Sacramento Center.

 


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